Bob Lutz: Whitacre Contributed, But Suggesting He Architected GM’s Current Success Is “like crediting the rooster with making the sun come up.”10
“I never cease to marvel at how many notables now wish to anoint themselves as the change agent who finally created the now-successful General Motors”, writes Bob Lutz in a Forbes opinion piece entitled How Ed Whitacre Saved GM In Just 10 Months, And Other Fables published in February. Lutz’s piece presents a first-person rebuttal of the notion that ex-GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre had a significant impact on GM as described in the ex-CEO’s book American Turnaround, and makes for a wonderful read.
Having presented the idea that Whitacre wasn’t all that and a bag of potato chips, Lutz then goes on to list President Obama and “his hand-picked fix-it team” of Steve Rattner, Ron Bloom, and Harry Wilson as other supposed examples of GM’s change agents. Lutz then realigns his focus on Whitacre, describing Big Ed’s time at the company as “wandering around uncovering employees who were insufficiently entrepreneurial, cautious or didn’t have enough “can-do” spirit.” And that’s just the opener, which means that it only gets better from here.
According to Lutz’s succeeding words, Whitacre solved each area of GM’s inefficiency by spreading “the gospel until all of GM’s hundreds of thousands of global employees got the word and quickly set about creating compelling new products, thus rocketing the company to financial success.” Lutz follows that marvel up with another one just as good, saying that he has an ocean front property in Nebraska to discuss with the reader if he actually believes any of Whitacre’s fables. He then points to two things that truly saved and transformed GM:
The first was a government-orchestrated and funded financial restructuring that equipped the automaker with “a balance sheet that didn’t drain away all of the operating profit.” Lutz writes that the Obama administration, along with Rattner, Bloom, and Wilson, should be credited for that.
The second is GM’s product renaissance, one that actually took place way before anyone at GM encountered Mr. Whitacre as the head honcho. Lutz points to the “entirety of the Chevrolets, Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs that were launched to huge acclaim in ’09, ’10, ’11 and ’12”. These “were conceived, designed, engineered and sent on their three-to-four year journey to introduction by the “old”, pre-bankruptcy GM team. You know, the incompetent, slow, clueless, unimaginative bunch led by Rick Wagoner, Fritz Henderson and [Lutz himself]. [They] did every one of those winning products for which some 90-day wonders would now like to be retroactively credited.”
But in Lutz’s now-familiar fair and honest nature, he adds that Whitacre did add some value: “He fought for speed and hated complexity”, pointing to Big Ed’s tenure at telecom giant AT&T, which isn’t “generally viewed as a paragon of lightning-fast agility”, something that “would suggest that it was a prolonged battle with an uncertain outcome.” Lutz then goes on to recall Ed’s “most notable contribution to design” — a remark made during a Cadillac styling session: “Professing to know nothing about cars (true), he nevertheless opined that Cadillacs had the look of “old-fashioned Choo-choo trains”.”
Lutz and company “…digested that opaque bit of input and elected to stay with what [they] had.” The jet-flying ex-exec wraps up his entire piece by crediting Whitacre with being a good leader who made an incremental improvement to the company. “But to suggest that he is the architect of GM’s current success is a bit like crediting the rooster with making the sun come up.”
The GM Authority Take
That is just the “Maximum truth-be-frankly-told” Bob Lutz we’ve come to know and love. The piece is full of juicy, delicious, and mind-blowing material (at least for GM enthusiasts) that challenges the notion that Mr. Whitacre was GM’s savior in his brief ten-month-long tenure as the company’s chief. And for that, we thank Bob for the clarification.
But that’s not to say that Mr. Whitacre didn’t contribute. From what we’ve read of Big Ed’s book, he cured more than a handful of managerial- and executive-level problems that were hindering The General, such as Fritz Henderson’s seeming inability to deliver a tangible restructuring plan of the automaker’s top-level management team; keep in mind that we have yet to hear from Mr. Henderson himself, who now serves as chairman and CEO of SunCoke Energy and probably has better things to do with his time… after all, he’s the only one of the trio who is not retired.
And with that, we can’t help but notice that this Old GM-New GM-transitionary-GM leadership trifecta is turning into a C-level pissing match the likes of which we haven’t seen since the ousting of a few GM executives in the early 90s. Our only question is, who will be next to air the dirty laundry?
- Sweepstakes Of The Month: Win a 2023 Corvette Z06 Convertible. Details here.
Let him have it Bob!
We the industry watchers know it was the people you enabled to do what was right and put in places to carry out what needs to be done are the ones who are responsible for the improvements.
Bob you planted good seed and the company will reap from those you sowed.
Read Car Guys vs Bean Counters by Bob Lutz and learn some of the truth. Bob please write Volume II as I know you did not tell all and those you left could use the support!
I was there in the years before bankruptcy and Bob went from meeting to meeting changing our plodding company and improving the product. I was an Engineer in Marketing clothing trying to get the best product out of Engineering. But because the better product, believe it or not, cost more money, we could not put the good stuff in.
Bob started to change that and that is why many parts of the the first LaCrosse were so good. He came in at the last moment and we were “allowed” to spend money on an interior that may not have been as attractive (too late for major styling revisions) BUT had all the good materials in it and best interior quality (fit and finish) ever for GM.
And from that car forward the improvements came. Look at any new vehicle after 2007 and you can see Bob is telling it as it is.
And he is absolutely right that the bankruptcy cleaned up the financial mess and allowed GM to actually make some money.
All I will add to this incredible story is been there(although I really haven’t personally) said that. Thank you Bob and others for making the GM we have today possible. I applaud the current and upcoming improved portfolio.
Genio y Figura, hasta la Sepultura! Bravo señor Lutz
Wagoner was a very good ceo, we fault him for being unable to do what was impossible at the time, besides had the recession not come. GM would likely have survived and Wagoner credited with turning GM around.
Seemingly everyone in the general public seems to think that the new team in charge of GM in 09 suddenly began making amazing cars, no one takes the time to think about that and understand that even building a car like the cruze takes almost 5 years from the start of the idea to the finished product being sold on the lots.
Though I think long term the bankruptcy made GM a better company.
If Whitacre and Akerson really believe that Lutz had little to contribute then I am most concerned. Mary Barra may have been brilliant in her production manufacturing role, but having her replace Lutz in such a critical role with limited exposure to product selection and design has me nervous. Such a move showed limited understanding of the true value that Lutz delivered.
Still adore the Pontiac Solstice Bob. You are a brilliant visionary!!!
Mary Barra will NEVER be able to fill Bob Lutz’s shoes. She won’t even come close.
I pray for the day when Bob returns to GM and takes Lackerson’s seat.
Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz were the team that initiated the turn-around. If I remember right, it was Rick Wagoner who hired Bob Lutz. Rick Wagoner even managed to negotiate a deal with UAW in 2008 to address the cost competitiveness issues. All he needed was a large enough credit line to survive the 2008 recession. GM was well ahead of Ford in early 2008 as far as restructuring is concerned. The Obama administration could have chosen a minimalistic approach and merely provided loan guarantees, and GM would have survived and prospered, just like Ford under Al Mullaly ( all-American hero ) did.
I take exception to Ed Whitaker s condescending portrayal of Fritz Henderson s management ability. The same goes for his remarks about Bob Lutz sitting in on board meetings. If anybody should be talking to the board, it is Bob Lutz (another all-American hero).
Besides Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, there are a lot of other team members that made great contributions to GMs rescue. Whitaker and Akerson are not at the top of that list, even though they probably do deserve credit for stream lining the New GM.
Tomorrow is the reveal of my new CTS. Thank you Bob.